Before FirstNet, those in the public safety community who were working toward the goal of a nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN) understood that even if Congress was convinced to offer up the additional 10 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum known then as the D-Block, and even if it reached deep into the government’s pocket and came up with $billions to fund the build-out and operation of the network, the public safety community was not capable of putting together a nationwide network. Nor was the federal government based on the failure a number of years ago of the nationwide Land Mobile Radio Network that was designed to bring together all the federal agencies that used LMR. That network, known as iWIN, was bid and rebid and failed to be built except for a portion in the Northwest.
The decision to ask Congress to form a public/private partnership between the federal government and a private company to build the FirstNet network seemed to be the answer to this dilemma. This would be the largest public/private partnership ever attempted and some predicted it would fail. In spite of that, the project moved ahead and instead of Congress putting in all the funds, it settled on a starter fund of $7 billion, which sounds like a lot of money. However, when the dust settles on FirstNet’s first five years of build-out, the cost of the network will be in the $30 or $40-billion range. Further, in order to avoid using federal funds for this starter kit, Congress elected to take the seed money from the next spectrum auction so it would not impact, in any way, our national debt, and citizens who did not agree with the concept would not be able to accuse Congress of using tax dollars for this project.
FirstNet was created in February of 2012 and it took until 2017 for a bidder to be accepted and to get the project off the ground. The best news for public safety was that when the bid was awarded to AT&T, it announced it would not merely build out yet another network using only the FirstNet spectrum, which would take years to complete. AT&T was ready to make all of its LTE spectrum available to agencies in any state that opted into the project. By the end of 2017, that included 100-percent of the states, plus Washington DC, and the six territories.
Today, the network is in use,FirstNet built by AT&T has signed up more than 650 agencies in 48 states and six territories, and the build-out of Band 14 (FirstNet’s spectrum) has begun in earnest, only a year after AT&T became the winning bidder. In the days before FirstNet, no one would have thought FirstNet, complete with priority, pre-emption, and its own Evolved Packet Core (EPC) would have been this successful and in operation this quickly after the bid award. AT&T’s vision to use its own spectrum and to build out Band 14 over time, and to add public safety-grade functions over time, makes a lot of sense and is providing great value to the public safety community right now along with the ability for agencies on board to learn, experiment, and help develop the applications needed in the field.
FirstNet (built by AT&T) and the FirstNet Authority (reporting to the NTIA) have worked through a number of issues and are now working well together. It should also be noted that FirstNet (built by AT&T) is also making use of rural network operators as required in the agreement and has entered into agreements or partnerships with a multiplicity of other vendors. It is a shame that on the federal government side the only partnership is with AT&T. What do I mean by that? I am talking about parlaying what FirstNet (AT&T) is doing, and the requirements to cover rural areas as quickly as metro and suburban areas. The federal government has not reached out to other agencies including its own (NTIA) to add partners to the mix for rural broadband.
Rural Broadband Gaining National Attention
Rather than extended partnerships, FirstNet continues to be going it alone, even though several sources of government assistance are available. The FCC has its Lifeline funding program for poverty and rural broadband and its Connect America fund, the NTIA has a multiplicity of grants for rural broadband under its BroadbandUSA organization, and the Farm Bureau offers grants as do other agencies. However, as I wrote in a previous Advocate, rural broadband is like a headless horseman. There are legs under it, there is bulk to it from multiple agencies, and Congress has a number of bills in process to augment it. Some states have taken over the idea of working with rural areas since the feds are so disorganized but the fact remains that there is no coordination or master plan.
Plans and Management Are Key
AT&T and the other network operators had a plan before they built out their networks. They assigned priorities, moved quickly, listened to their customers, and added more coverage and capacity as needed. FirstNet already has a huge AT&T LTE footprint though more coverage is needed in some areas, and Band 14 is being built out in a logical manner. The design engineers, site engineers, and other LTE experts are taking direction from those in charge and are filling in the holes and meeting the FirstNet goals, so far, always ahead of schedule.
Why don’t we have real take-charge leadership for rural broadband? When I look at rural America I see it as the many different groups and services that need broadband. These include:
- Public safety
- Schools and libraries
- Students at home after school
- Medical facilities and remote medicine
- Farmers and livestock farms
- Interstates and other roadways
- To provide communications for the coming autonomous vehicle onslaught
- Electric and other utilities for automatic meter reading and command-and-control
- And more
However, those with grants for rural broadband focus on only one element of the list. For example, there have been a number of grants to take fiber to schools and libraries but that does not take care of the students at home. A number of grants have paid for fiber to the home and farm but farmers need broadband that is usable over their entire farmland. Farmers have been using cellular to automate some of their tasks. Analog cellular was the early version of machine-to-machine cellular communications well before it became the Internet of Things (IoT). It seems logical that private/public partnerships can and should be put together to solve all of these issues at once, or to expand on FirstNet Authority/FirstNet (built by AT&T) to provide more broadband to more of these segments.
I am aware that some states and regions are moving forward with a more ubiquitous plan for rural broadband. I also realize it is difficult to bring all the various stakeholders in rural areas together and then to reach a consensus. However, right now we are simply throwing taxpayer dollars at some of these groups and solving broadband connectivity issues in small segments of the rural community. A more centrally focused approach based on federal government grants and low-cost loans, partnered with one or more private sector companies, would go a long way toward addressing our “digital divide” so often mentioned in the press and in Congress.
Radio and Fiber
Some in various federal, state, and local agencies still believe fiber alone is the answer to rural broadband. Yet most of us know fiber to a central location followed by wireless broadband for distribution is more cost effective, covers larger areas, and is, I believe, the key to solving rural connectivity issues. Fiber to a school carries broadband to that school. If that broadband is then pumped through a broadband wireless pipe it can serve entire neighborhoods. In places where running fiber to a central location is too costly, there is microwave for bridging the gap. However, a fiber-only solution for rural America means that portions of our rural population will never have access to broadband.
How to Proceed?
I do not have the answer to how to convince people to work together to make rural broadband a reality. Certainly, where FirstNet is built out public safety gains broadband access. Also, as a side benefit, the citizens in that area will finally have broadband service. FirstNet is required to provide broadband service for the public safety community in rural areas but that does not mean, according to FirstNet Authority’s RFP, that every rural citizen will also be covered and have access. In order to accomplish that goal, we need to expand this very successful private/public partnership or we need to form a new one dedicated to combining all the resources the feds have made available in the form of grants and loans.
One big hurdle could be overcome if the various agencies that offer grants and loans pooled their resources and did not, as many do today, prohibit any entity that has received one grant or loan from being considered for another, even from a different agency. Solving a problem has always been about teamwork. FirstNet is a team of dedicated folks in the federal and private sectors, and it is working well. Yes, there were some rough spots and it did take a while before the two parties became a well-oiled machine. It did so because everyone involved shared the vision of taking public safety’s communications into the 22ndcentury.
What will serve as the catalyst for expanding the FirstNet mandate or using FirstNet as a starting point and forming one or more partnerships to build on its accomplishments? The federal government reminds me of a consulting assignment I once had for an international company that was the leading supplier of PC processors. I was asked to find all the groups and divisions that were working on some form of wireless technology and write a report to management so they could be brought together under one management structure. I wrote the report but nothing ever happened. When I asked the vice president who had hired me he explained that not one program I had identified was interested in working with others on common goals because each manager had his/her own set of milestones they were judged on when it came time for a promotion and/or raise. The unfortunate thing about this is that the company could have become a major force in the wireless arena had it chosen to work in unison.
We continue to work with counties and states on rural coverage issues, but it certainly would be easier for everyone involved if there was a centralized clearinghouse of rural funding, planning, and deployment. The largest private/public partnership in the form of FirstNet has been hugely successful, why does it not serve as a model for another to work hand-in-hand with FirstNet to eliminate, once and for all, the Digital Divide?
Some public safety folks feel that FirstNet is all about public safety and they are right. However, with priority, pre-emption, and a special core for public safety, I see no danger in using the spectrum to provide broadband for citizens in these rural areas when public safety is not using it.
Andrew M. Seybold
2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.©